The Art of the Sub $200 NAS Build

By | December 24, 2016

For decades building your own computer has been a central experience among computer enthusiasts. There’s an indescribable satisfaction that comes with picking out the parts and assembling them into a full computer all by yourself. That same satisfaction extends itself when people decide to build their own network attached storage (NAS) if they’re not simply repurposing an old desktop into a NAS machine. In this post, I document a budget NAS/HTPC/Linux machine build that I recently completed, along with all the relevant details like how I found the deals I got, how the mail in rebates went, and the justifications behind choosing certain parts. If you build your NAS the same way I did, you can expect your total cost to come out around $175-$250 depending on the processor and hard drive you decide on.

Shopping it out

I was poking around /r/buildapcsales over the last few weeks when I found some good deals with mail in rebates (MIR). Normally people advise not to include the MIR price with your budget as it’s easy to forget to send them in. However, the deals I found made the cost trivial: $33 for a 450W Evga power supply with a $25 MIR, and $35 for a Rosewill Neutron case with a $25 rebate. With that in mind, I hopped onto Microcenter’s AMD bundles page and found a deal on the FX-8320E and a Gigabyte motherboard – $85 for both after a $10 MIR (and you get a free game). I ordered the parts without hesitation and made the trip to the local Microcenter that weekend; I had never been to one before, and apparently it is a privilege to be within driving distance of one.

Microcenter store

Microcenter is indeed a geek’s paradise. Entire aisles for each component, CAT-5 cable by the reel, routers with 30% casually marked off, display case after display case of storage and memory. I was pleasantly surprised to find an entire section dedicated to Raspberry Pi’s and micro controllers. The staff was knowledgeable and friendly. I couldn’t help but notice a man with his kid perusing through the store – it might have been the unforgettable day where the little guy got to pick out his first computer. At any rate, I lost an hour after I picked up my order which I made online. You can order online and pickup from the store within their “18 minute line guarantee”, though my wait was more like 18 seconds. “Your total is . . . $102.53?” said the cashier, treading the line between a statement and a question.

theLoot

The rest of the components came by mail. It was painful to come home from work each day and see the CPU and motherboard sitting gloomily on the table. I was O.K. with waiting though, because the shipping was free and came within a week. Online retailers have stepped on their game since Amazon burst into the scene with their Prime delivery. I ordered from B&H and NewEgg and got free shipping from both.

Maybe it wasn’t the ideal point in time to build another computer, as NAND flash shortage has kept SSD and RAM prices from dropping. Still, I found an 8 GB stick of Ballistix Sport for $47 shipped on NewEgg and settled for that, though it wasn’t long ago I could have got 8 GB of Hyper X for around $35 each. I ended up using the Rosewill line M case for $28, bringing the total to approximately $175 with shipping and tax included. On to the assembly.

The Build

Type Part Price
CPU AMD FX-8320E 3.2GHz 8-Core Processor $102 @ Microcenter
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-78LMT-USB3 Micro ATX AM3+ Motherboard $0 @ Microcenter($10 MIR)
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory $47 @ Newegg
Case Rosewill Line-M MicroATX Mini Tower Case $28 @ Amazon
Power Supply EVGA 450W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply $33 @ BH ($25 MIR)
 Storage Spare at home  $0
Total (before mail-in rebates) $210
Mail-in rebates -$35
Total $175

I had a spare drive lying around so I’m cheating a little bit. This will be a NAS, HTPC, or Linux machine. Or all of the above, as long as it can run a Plex server and manage my files. The main difference between this type of build and traditional desktop builds is that it doesn’t need a graphics card or a Windows license (which will cost you an additional $200-$300). The processor, which does the transcoding, is the most important part. To see how well a given processor fares at this task, see the CPU benchmarking page for passmark scores. Notice how the FX-8320 “E” edition processor scores at about 93.3% of the non-E version. This is because the thermal design power (TDP) is 95 watts instead of 125 watts – it sips less heavily from the outlet (76% as much) without much impact on performance. It has a passmark score of 7,472 which can support 3 or more high quality streams. This makes it a great choice for the build since it will need to do some heavy lifting transcoding and serving media occasionally, but at the same time not impact my electricity use too much.

The Building Phase

Team shot

Note: the case in this picture is the Neutron

I had only built an Intel machine before, so I was curious to see how it would go with AMD’s CPU and cooler. I remember having difficulty with the Intel cooler, and ended up replacing it a year later anyway. The AMD cooler is certainly a simpler design, and kind of swam around on the thermal paste covered processor while I fastened it, but it worked out and is relatively quiet.

the brain

Back side of CPU. These are the pins, do not bend them!

The power supply was a fantastic deal, even if it isn’t modular. I don’t have a graphics card in this build so I have extra space for the cables, and there is no window on the side door of the case so nobody has to see the cable management (or lack thereof).

non modular PSU

The tanglecord that is non-modular PSU

The case has a simple design – it consists of thin cuts of metal, the drive cage is actually bendable. I searched for a while for a way to screw in my SSD. It turns out there is an indent on the bottom where you screw it in. While I’m sure it was designed to save space, but I still had to connect the power supply from the top of the case to the bottom, which took up more space. The I/O shield took some finesse to snap in but wasn’t a problem. The motherboard and PSU fit snugly. For a budget build, the case serves its purpose. I would advise putting a few more dollars towards a higher quality case, or one with better/more ample drive bays if you are getting 4 or more HDDs.

cpu and motherboard

I mistakenly bought the Rosewill Neutron case thinking it was a mATX, when in reality it’s a mini-ITX case which only fits motherboards with a mini-ITX form factor. I found this out when I attempted to mount the motherboard to the case and saw the motherboard hanging out the side of the case by a good 1.5″. I am not a smart human. It’s a really nice case though, so I’m not unhappy about having it for just $10. I replaced it with the Rosewill line M case from Amazon because I didn’t want to wait any longer (if you live by a warehouse, you can get things the next day).

caseScrews

Individually labelled bags of screws. Rosewill knows how to please.

Rosewill Line M

And here’s the Line M case with a blue LED fan. Surprisingly, though it has a larger motherboard form factor than the Neutron, it is actually shorter and slimmer.

Mail in rebates

This build was completed with rebates in mind, and I think there is some ambiguity about how arduous the whole process really is, whether they’re fully honored, etc, so I’ll share my experience with mail in rebates. Most people tend to avoid rebates or will tell you not to factor them into your budget’s cost because you might forget to do them afterwards. Which is good advice if your time is highly valued: you’ll need to print out the correct PDFs, cut out the product’s UPC code from the box, tape it to the form. . . This all takes time, and if you’re only getting $10 back then you’re basically working for a little more than minimum wage. However, if the rebate is $20 or more, or if there are multiple rebates that can be submitted with a single form, then it makes more sense to take the time to do them.

mail in rebate form

My rebates were for Evga, Gigabyte and Rosewill. Evga has a site where you enter what you bought and when you bought it, and then you can select your product and download the corresponding PDF. Make sure you have Javascript enabled and your ad-blocker off since there are sometimes two or more pages of results. All you really need beyond this is an envelope, a stamp, and the knowledge of how to correctly use the postal mail system (ha). They sometimes have some fairly specific instructions so make sure you double check everything. Gigabyte’s rebate was interesting because they offer to expedite the rebate for one dollar.

What’s next (operating systems)

free and open source OSes

With the actual machine built, the next step is to install the operating system. As you may have guessed, I’m going to recommend NAS4Free or another free and open source OS for that matter, such as FreeNAS or OpenMediaVault (OMV). There are others, but they are still in their infancy. For my particular build, my hardware doesn’t match the FreeNAS developer recommendations in terms of CPU and RAM – they strongly urge people to buy Intel and ECC RAM. Both will cost you more with little more than anecdotal evidence to back it up.

That leaves me with NAS4Free and OMV, or a Linux distribution like Ubuntu Server. Plex media server is supported on Linux, and the latest version of Ubuntu (16.04) now supports ZFS – a file system and logical volume manager that is one of the main attractions of NAS4Free and FreeNAS. It allows you to manage multiple disks with software RAID. So it may be worth considering Ubuntu if you are a more tech savvy user. For the average user, NAS4Free is more than enough.

The End

This concludes my budget home server build. I found some good deals, but also very mediocre deals (case, RAM). You could conceivably complete a build with storage for $150-$175, if you start with a $50-$60 AMD CPU/motherboard bundle from Microcenter and buy the rest of the parts when they have rebates like the Evga power supply I got. Here is a hypothetical build using prices that aren’t unheard of:

  • AMD CPU/mobo bundle – $55
  • Case (Thermaltake, Rosewill, Fractal) – $30
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM (Crucial, Kingston, G.Skill) – $40
  • 300W-450W Evga Power supply unit – $8 (MIR)
  • 1TB HDD (HGST, Western Digital, Toshiba) – $40
  • TOTAL: $173 w/ storage

Alternatively, some prefer to buy used servers/server parts from Ebay and get a pretty beastly system that might even double as a space heater. This method would probably trump this build as Xeon processors that are a few years old sell for a fraction of their initial price tag, yet they still offer a considerable amount of processing power. This also requires a little more technical know-how.

Overall it was a fun experience, and I even felt compelled to celebrate officially joining Team Red (AMD)

Team Red

Already have a home server build? Post about your setup in the comments!

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